What am I as a human being? What is it to be human? I find that most of us ask those questions all of the time, thinking that we never ask them. We often say that these are philosophical questions, of little interest to pragmatic people in the real world. And, I find that we each carry a picture, often implicitly accepted from someone else, of what we are as humans. This picture of the human being underpins everything in all of our agreements, whether we have consciously chosen these agreements or unconsciously accepted them.
I have been exploring many different perspectives on this question over the past few years. These perspectives are fascinating and I find many of them to be very seductive, pulling me into their orbits and convincing me of their perspective; until I dive into the next one. The realization of this exploratory confusion in me led me to begin to look for people who have mapped the topography of these explorations.
One of the most helpful mappings I have found of this huge space is George Makari‘s Soul Machine, “an attempt to untangle [the apparent] contradictions [amongst these perspectives] by returning to their origins…The emergence of the mind as a formative, if always embattled, belief, cannot be understood outside this historical context…this book recovers a lost lineage, parts of which have been long discarded as embarrassing, wrongheaded, or irrelevant” (pp. xi-xii). In the question of what is it to be human, Makari explores the evolution of our understanding of the mind (from PIE root *men- (1) “to think”), what is it that we experience that thinks?
“While our own psyches seem abundantly clear to us, attempts to objectively establish their existence have been mired in seemingly insoluble problems. And so, while the mind remains central to 21-century Western thought, a number of prominent neuroscientists and philosophers inform us that it surely does not exist” (p x).
“The invention of the mind was not the result of sedate academic debate. The mind was a radically destabilizing, heretical idea that grew out of intense, often violent conflict. Far from being a story of scholarship alone, this history begins and ends in bloodshed. Characters in this account include thinkers writing at their desks, but also wild-eyed prophets, doctors whose space rooms were littered with carcasses, political spies, bitter refugees, witches, quacks, and pornographers. This story takes place in universities, courts, hospitals, London coffeehouses and Paris salons, but also on battlefields, in lunatic asylums, poorhouses, and prisons. For better or worse, advocates and enemies of the mind were not sequestered in their studies. Often they could be found at the barricades” (p xi).
“Once modernity gave birth to the theory of an embodied mind, the implications were grave. If it wasn’t the soul but rather a fallible mind that made men and women think, choose, and act as thy did, then long-standing beliefs were erroneous. Convictions regarding truth and illusion, innocence and guilt, health and illness, the rulers and the ruled, and the roles of the individual in society would need to change. Not surprisingly, therefore, from its inception this concept was considered scandalous. Early advocates surrounded themselves in clouds of ambiguity; they published anonymously and when discovered, quickly fled from red-faced censors and mobs. Monarchs and theologians decried these heretics and roused their forces against them” (p xii).
This big book of over 600 pages chronicles this human exploration in the Western world over centuries, diving deep into the context of many of these explorers. Wading through it over the past month has given me much greater context for the Western explorers I have been reading, such as Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. It is very interesting to see how they all fit into overlapping contexts with each other. I highly recommend this deep dive, for those of you who like to dive deep. It could also serve you if you want to take a quick dive into the context of specific developers of our existing understanding of the mind.